Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity 2020

And then… the gospel.

The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor

Sunday, 11th October 2020 at 11.15 AM

As I started looking through the readings set for today, I found myself giving silent thanks, in my heart, for the person who sorts out the preaching rota. He is called William. How kind of him, however unwitting, to give me these texts to preach on. Isaiah 25—the Lord’s deliverance of his people from oppression and the heavenly banquet on the mountain, where every tear will be wiped away and death is destroyed (words echoed, movingly, in the book of Revelation). Wonderful.

Then to the 23rd Psalm. Were there ever such words of comfort and reassurance? What better text for a pandemic, to know that even in the valley of the shadow of death we need fear no evil, for God is with us. And again, the banquet—the table spread; our head anointed, the attentive host filling our wine-glass.

And then, O textual feast, to the last chapter of the letter to the Philippians. The warmth of Paul’s affection is overwhelming, even for the two disciples who are clearly at odds with one another. Brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown. St Paul calls on them to rejoice, not to worry, to pray, to imitate his faith—they are words of a proud and doting father to his beloved children.

Up to this point, I was giving thanks—here are words that an anxious, weary, pandemic-ridden world needs to hear; to be comforted and encouraged through another deeply uncertain week, where everything seems to be getting more difficult, more of a struggle, more of an effort as we try to do our best in the midst of guidance which, however simple in principle, proves to be anything but in practice; trying to work out who we can and can’t meet; smothered by unwanted face-coverings.

Today’s readings seemed to be such a welcome antidote to all that, and then… the gospel. A sting in the tail if ever there was one.

The parable of the wedding banquet starts so promisingly. A royal wedding banquet is called, and invitations are sent out. No takers, which is strange. Who would refuse a royal invitation—how many republicans are really that ardent? So the king tries again. This time, the feast is on the table—we imagine Isaiah’s rich banquet on the mountain, as surely Jesus’s audience would have done. But no—everyone either has something better to do, or turns on the messengers, maltreating them; killing them. This story gets stranger and stranger.

The Church Fathers, those early interpreters of the scriptures (Mothers didn’t get much of a look-in, unfortunately) they read this allegorically—the king is God, and the refusal of the wedding invitation is the refusal of the law of Moses, first, and of the Gospel, second. God keeps inviting his people and they keep refusing. Unfortunately, this kind of reading struggles not to slip into anti-Semitism—the failure of the Jews to obey the law, and their subsequent failure to recognise the Messiah—as if any of us were immune from such a tendency to refuse and to fail.

Such a reading is problematic not just because it vilifies a whole race, but because it lets us off the hook too easily—it doesn’t encourage us to think how we too refuse God’s invitation—even those of us who have begun to hear the gospel. Better, surely, to read this in human rather than racial terms—Israel, yes, as a distinct people with whom God has had to do—with whom God made a covenant no less—but Israel as the chosen people through whom all people are chosen. Remember that Isaiah’s banquet on the mountain is prepared for all people. Can we not see ourselves reflected in the historic Israel; as inheritors of all God’s promises, invited into all the glories of the gospel, and yet so slow to truly accept them, to let their ramifications really change us? To stop reading where the Church Fathers stopped, to stop interpreting this parable, to content ourselves with an ‘us’ and ‘them’ interpretation is frankly a bit lazy in a way that I don’t think the Fathers, or Mothers, would have approved. Just as the Pharisees recognised that Jesus was telling parables about them, perhaps we should be more ready to hear them as being told about us.

We are all invited to the wedding banquet, to live in the Kingdom of God, and yet, strangely, we resist, we find better things to do, other places to put our energies and our hopes. I say ‘we’, by which I mean not just we who are at least here—at least trying to respond to the invitation to some degree—but ‘we’ as in our culture, our nation, which slowly, inexorably it seems, is turning away, leaving that invitation on the doormat, unanswered. Our culture is pretty convinced of its own rectitude, its own capacity to make something of itself, to create its own heaven here on earth—and our culture is also rightly appalled at the Church and its inability to respond to the challenge of its own failures; safeguarding among them.

It’s not been a great week to be in the Church of England, for sure. As those who are not only invited, but who also carry God’s invitation for others, who are called to offer to others the banquet in which every Eucharist participates, we find ourselves very much on the back foot—not maltreated, like the servants in the parable, but certainly not much wanted.

As with a number of the parables in Matthew’s gospel, the parable of the Wedding Banquet then takes a distinctly dark turn. The king is furious with those who have refused the invitation and mistreated his servants, and exacts a murderous revenge. If we are still thinking that this king is God, then that surely begs some uncomfortable questions.

Having vented his appalling wrath, the king tells his slaves to invite everybody they find to the Wedding Banquet. Now presumably word would have got around about the fate of the original invitees, so is it any surprise that, this time, the wedding hall is full to bursting.

Again, the Fathers interpret this as the gathering in of the gentiles; but I ask you, what kind of wedding banquet have they now been invited to? It certainly wouldn’t be a relaxed affair if you knew that your host had genocidal tendencies. I doubt there would be much small talk, as they waited for the host to arrive. The canapés would be curling on their platters, untouched. This is more like a Mob wedding, where you either turn up or risk being gunned-down.

And, true to form, when the king comes in he makes a bee-line for the odd one out. If I could channel an inner Marlon Brando I would: Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?

The Fathers liken the wedding garment to a baptismal robe, or a symbol of charitable deeds. Not wearing one would therefore be another sign of refusal of the gospel, a failure to recognise the Messiah, a refusal to be clothed with the Spirit. ‘Us and them’ become us and him—the one who is then bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness.

I hope I don’t sound dismissive of the Fathers, and I hope it is clear that I tread with great care. But just as they interpreted for their time and context, so we must do so for ours. Their interpretation remains authoritative and foundational, with a method and a perspective that constantly challenges and refreshes our own, but they would never have imagined that theirs was the final word. They understood the dynamism of Scripture—the word of God being living and active (in the words of the letter to the Hebrews)—speaking afresh and anew to every generation.

So what could this difficult parable mean for us?

That wedding hall, stuffed with compliant guests, fearful of their host, makes me think of the kind of Church that some would imagine us to be—preaching a gospel of control and conformity, with no room for the fullness of human diversity. A Church proclaiming a God who demands love, but in whom simmers a latent violence. A Church that vilifies the non-conformist, the one who won’t just play-along, and casts them out, violently, viciously. A Church more concerned with how it looks than with the one who faces terrible abuse.

Some modern interpreters suggest that the man without the wedding robe is in fact Christ—the one who was silent before his accusers, who was bound and thrown out, to grind his teeth in agony on the Cross.

The parable of the Wedding Banquet is a vision of heaven that turns into a travesty. It is a parable of human failure and refusal—ours included. The king is a deeply ambivalent figure, much more a reflection of our own ambivalence than anything we could safely ascribe to God—a person capable of enormous generosity (made for it, perhaps) but quickly moved to tyrannical rage. The parable almost invites us to identify ourselves with one or other group—almost sets us up to think in terms of us and them—but then in the final figure—the man without the wedding garment—focuses our ‘othering’ onto a single figure, the ultimate scapegoat.

Jesus’ only commentary on this parable is that ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’ It seems a very strange thing to say, unless, perhaps, it is another elliptical way of pointing to himself, pointing, perhaps to his own passion—the chosen one, the one bound and cast out, unrobed on the Cross. Few are chosen, indeed.

We are all invited to this feast, this Eucharist, this foretaste of the heavenly wedding banquet, but I hope we haven’t been herded in here out of fear, and no record is being kept of our refusals and failures—heaven does not require track and trace. We are invited by the king who was in fact thrown out, who offers his own life for the feast, and invites us, again and again, despite our failures and refusals, to know him in his Word, in the Sacraments—and who calls us his beloved brothers and sisters, his joy and his crown.

Thanks be to God.